Of oxen caravans and cultivator woes... Toiling in the Lamasooriya Valley | Sunday Observer

Of oxen caravans and cultivator woes... Toiling in the Lamasooriya Valley

“Unlike cultivators in other areas we have to pay an additional one tenth share of our harvest to the ox caravans nsport our produce up to the road, ” lamented 30-year-old Kumudini Nirosha while winnowing the last half bushel of this season’s paddy harvest from the two acre plot in the Lamasooriya Valley that they had cultivated on lease.

Nirosha’s family is one of the three hundred or more farmer families that undergo utmost hardships to cultivate the 600 acres of fertile terraced paddy land in the picturesque Lamasooriya Valley situated in the the Hanguranketha Divisional Secretary Division in the Nuwara Eliya District and only accessible on foot. At harvest time Nirosha and Hitihamy are in their field by 5a.m. “Sometimes it’s past dusk when we leave,” Nirosha said.

Nirosha helps in the many chores on harvest day as well as brewing steaming pots of tea for her husband and other helpers while it is Hitihamy that has to ensure that there is water to drink. He carries 20 litres of water at a time drawn from the Beliul Oya which flows through the valley a hundred or so metres below their field.

 

In an era in which machinery has taken over most of the chores on farmlands and many hundreds and thousands kilometres of expressways, highways and by roads crisscross the island, there still remain a few places in Sri Lanka where farmers have to undergo hardship to cultivate fields which are only accessible on foot. And in some places like Lamasooriya, cultivators engage a ‘thawalama’ or ox caravan which are hardly seen on today’s road to transport their produce from the threshing field on to a roadway from where it can be taken home by tractor or lorry.

The Lamasooriya Valley is encircled by the Lihiniyagala, Ethibedigala, Bambaragala and Naranthalawa hills. The fields are irrigated with the waters of the Beliul Oya which originates in Kabaragala and flows through the valley. Its water is diverted above the valley at the Lamasuriya and Serupitiya anicuts which flow on the upper periphery of the left and right bank fields respectively. The Beliuloya is a tributary of the Mahaweli and should not be mistaken with the Belihul Oya which originates in the Horton Plains and flows into the Samanalawewa Reservoir. According to villagers the Lamasooriya anicut was said to have been built in 1847 by the British. “This is the 15th year that I am cultivating a field on lease in the Lamasooriya Valley,” said Hitihamy. He also said that the cultivators of Lamasooriya have to bear an additional cost to transport seed paddy and manure to the field in addition to having to pay for the harvest to be transported out on the back of oxen. “The owners charge between rupees 200 to 300 per ox per trip when they transport seed paddy and manure and take between 1/8th and 1/10th share of the harvest they carry,” he moaned.

This year the yield in Hitihamy’s field of one acre was only about 60 bushels which he had to share equally with the land owner. It was the land owner that had met most of the cost excluding Hitihamy’s and Nirosha’s toil. “There have been years that I got a yield of 102 bushels per acre” he said. According to Hitihamy it costs about Rupees 46,000 to cultivate an acre of paddy in the Lamasooriya Valley. “At times I feel that we would have been better off if we engaged in daily labour rather than cultivate,” he added. Shantha Abeykone the former chairman of the Lamasooriya Ela Pahala Farmers’ Society said that there were other villages in the Nuwara Eliya district such as Kalaganwatta, Theiripeha, Madulla, Mungwatta and Meeriyabedda where ox caravans were still being used. “In addition to the hardships faced the cultivators in Lamasooriya feel the pinch of having to pay an additional 10% to 12.5% for the ox caravans which other cultivators do not have to pay” he said. According to Abeykone the families that cultivate fields in the Lamasooriya Valley are from over twenty surrounding villagers. In most instances the owners give their fields on the ‘kanna-maru lease’ and do not allow any cultivator to lease the same field for two consecutive seasons.

“There are only about four or five permanent cultivators known as ‘anda govi,’” he said. He also said that there were about fifteen persons who owned oxen and made a living by transporting essentials to and produce from the fields on the backs of the oxen.

For many years it has been 51-year-old K. G. Weerakone Banda that has been contracted to transport Hitihamy’s harvest to the road. Weerkone Banda has been transporting goods to and from the valley for the past 15 years as well. “On a normal day it takes me and my oxen about an hour and a half to traverse the narrow foot paths and get to the road way. The route is a grueling two and half kilometers uphill climb” he said.

As the climb is extremely strenuous a bull is not laden with more than 45kg. He said that the herdsmen have to be extra vigilant and avoid two oxen meeting face to face on the narrow footpath as inevitably they start butting each other.

“During the harvest season I make about three or four journeys to and from the valley each day as I have to allow the animals sufficient time to grace and rest. I have been fortunate not to have faced any mishap up to date” he said.

S. M. Maddumabandara, Treasurer of the Lamasooriya Ela Pahala Farmers’ Society suggested that the hire paid to the ox caravans could be reduced if the ancient lower Badulla road was either reopened or the bund of the main canal was widened.

30-year-old Nishan Abeykone had taken time off from his regular job as cook at a Colombo hotel to help his father (Shantha) during the harvest. Nishan was of the opinion that if the main canals were not maintained regularly and the problems faced by the cultivators not addressed, with the rising cost of transportation, labour, fertilizer, chemicals and other things each season, in time to come no sane person would be willing to cultivate the fields in the valley.

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